Researchers tracking the pandemic said the number of COVID-19 cases in the country may reach 1 million before the end of April amid a surge of infections.
In its latest monitoring report, the OCTA Research Group said that while COVID-19 transmission has slowed in Metro Manila due to tightened restrictions, infections still grew by 20 percent with 5,538 daily new cases over the last week.
“Before the end of April, the Philippines is expected to have recorded more than 1,000,000 total COVID-19 cases,” OCTA said.
Metro Manila’s reproduction number from March 29 to April 4 also decreased to 1.61, meaning each COVID-19 case could infect more than one other person.
The reproduction number is “trending down towards 1.3 or less by April 11,” OCTA said.
However, the Department of Health disputed the OCTA Research view that the transmission of COVID-19 in Metro Manila has slowed down.
"No, the virus spread has not slowed down yet," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in an online briefing.
Vergeire described the reduction in the coronavirus infections tally from March 15 to 21 to March 29 to April 4 as "artificial,” saying the decline in new cases was due to laboratories that did not operate during the Holy Week.
The Philippines logged 8,355 new COVID-19 cases Monday, bringing the total to 803,398, as active cases stood at 143,726, the DOH reported. Three laboratories were not able to submit their data on time.
Over the weekend, Malacañang announced that the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the strictest lockdown classification, over the National Capital Region (NCR), Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal —also called the NCR Plus bubble— would be extended by a week to April 11.
“It is clear that the lockdown has been effective in slowing down the increase in the number of new cases in the NCR. With an additional week of ECQ… the goal is to bring the reproduction number down to 1 or close to it,” OCTA said.
OCTA said that transmission has slowed down in Manila, Parañaque, Marikina, and Navotas, while Pasay and Makati recorded a downward trend in new cases.
However, “rapid increases” in new infections were still observed in Mandaluyong, Las Piñas and San Juan.
“The goal is for these LGUs to have low or negative one-week growth rates in new COVID-19 cases very soon,” the researchers said.
OCTA also said the addition of hospital beds for COVID-19 cases helped bring down the hospital occupancy rate in some cities but warned that these could be filled up soon.
“We will still be seeing 11,000 to 12,000 plus [cases] per day for the next week or so,” OCTA Research fellow Prof. Guido David said in an interview on GMA News.
Meanwhile, OCTA said Cebu has shown a downtrend in new cases and hospital occupancy.
The province’s positivity rate has also dropped to an “acceptable level” at less than 10 percent.
“Cebu and its large cities (Cebu City, Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu) have again shown that resilience and effective pandemic management are key against COVID-19,” the experts said.
On the other hand, Batangas and Pampanga both recorded one-week case growth rates higher than 50 percent.
Batangas had a positivity rate over 20 percent and a hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy rate above 60 percent.
Pampanga, Isabela and Benguet had hospital and ICU utilization rates higher than 70 percent.
Also on Monday, the DOH said local government units in Metro Manila will start operating their own triage system for COVID-19 cases this week amid the surge in infections.
Under this system, local health workers will assess whether patients need to be admitted to a hospital or a quarantine facility as part of a bid to decongest crowded emergency rooms, Vergeire said.
“This is a layer that we are trying to include into the structure. We will cut the structure where, from the home or LGU, [patients go] straight to the hospital,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.
The triage areas of local governments will be linked to ambulances and the One Hospital Command, a referral system for health care providers and medical transportation, she said.
The DOH seeks the establishment of a triage system in all areas across the country.
It also renewed its call for local governments to set up their own COVID-19 telemedicine hotlines since the One Hospital Command is being swamped with up to 400 calls daily, she said.
Vergeire also said the DOH has identified areas where 257 additional isolation beds can be set up.
Last month, the Department of Education (DepEd) also approved the use of some schools in Metro Manila as isolation facilities.
The DOH has also set up modular tents and hospital extensions to accommodate more patients amid the surge.
Malacanang on Monday encouraged the public to avail of free COVID-19 testing as the government ramps up efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, the author of the Universal Health Care Law in the 17th Congress, said the government shoulders the testing cost for medical and economic frontliners, returning overseas Filipino workers, people with the symptoms and those with exposure to the illness.
“We want to offer people a free diagnostic including PCR tests. Now, I would like to point out that testing is virtually free if you are an economic frontliner, a medical frontliner, if you have had exposure or if you have symptoms,” Roque said in an interview over ANC’s Headstart Monday.
However, Roque clarified that people who are asymptomatic and without exposure will still need to pay for a COVID-19 test.
The Palace official said the government, through the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), has been offering a benefit package for coronavirus testing.
“The Philippine Red Cross has been billing PhilHealth billions and billions of pesos because it is the government that pays for PCR testing. So it is virtually free except for those who have had no contact [with COVID-19 patients] and no symptoms and still want to be tested,” Roque said.
The DOH on Monday said all 17 DOH-retained hospitals remain operational despite reports that some of them in Metro Manila had suspended operations due to the increasing number of infections among their health workers.
Some DOH-retained hospitals have suspended elective surgeries and outpatient department (OPD) operations to ensure that the most critical services continue while health care workers recover from COVID-19.
Individual hospital infection control units have started hospital-level investigations to find sources of infection and contain further spread.
To avoid overcrowding in hospitals, the public is encouraged to use teleconsultations for non-urgent medical needs.
For telemedicine consultations, the public may consult through the following DOH Telemedicine partners:
1. CloudPx: https://econsult.cloudmd.com.ph/
2. HealthNowPH: https://healthnow.ph/
3. SeeYouDoc: https://www.seeyoudoc.com
4. TelAventusMD: fb.com/TelAventusMD
5. MedCheck E-consult: www.medcheck.com.ph
6. TrinityCare: via the App Store or Google Play or +63917 111 1975
With the goal of augmenting hospital capacities following the increased occupancy rates in NCR hospitals, the DOH, the World Health Organization (WHO), and UNICEF are speeding up the delivery and set up of modular tents in hospitals across Metro Manila.
So far, eight NCR hospitals have requested the setting up of modular tents, namely: Jose R. Reyes Memorial Medical Center (JRRMMC) at the Quezon Institute (QI), Jose N. Rodriguez Memorial Hospital and Sanitarium (Tala), Amang Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center, Tondo Medical Center, National Center for Mental Health, Lung Center of the Philippines (LCP), National Kidney and Transplant Institute, and San Lazaro Hospital.
The requested tents of JRRMC for QI and the request of San Lazaro Hospital were scheduled for delivery. Additionally, the WHO has committed to provide four tents to be used as LGU-based triage areas.
The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is now coordinating with concerned LGUs for the allocation and setup of the tents.
Of the active cases, which is 17.9 percent of the total, 97.5 percent are mild; 1.1 percent are asymptomatic; 0.5 percent are critical; 0.6 percent are severe; and 0.34 percent are moderate.
The DOH reported that 145 persons recovered recently, bringing the total recoveries to 646,237, which is 80.4 percent of the total.
The DOH also reported 10 new fatalities, bringing the death toll to 13,435, which is 1.67 percent of the total.
Nationwide, 61 percent of the ICU beds are in use; 47 percent of the isolation beds are in use; 51 percent of the ward beds are in use; and 43 percent of the total units of ventilators are being used.
In Metro Manila, 79 percent of ICU beds are in use; 72 percent of the isolation beds are in use; 60 percent of the ward beds are in use; and 61 percent of ventilators are being used.
The country has been logging record-high daily cases since March. The number of new cases on Monday was the 11th highest since the start of the pandemic.
The DOH also said the low number of infections was due to the reduced laboratory operations over the Holy Week.
Out of the 239 licensed laboratories, only 219 laboratories conducted tests on April 1, 207 conducted tests on April 2, and 216 conducted tests on April 3, the DOH said.